“Just let them dance. We want to see them dance!”
Tramell Tillman is quoting the crew members of Severance, Apple TV+’s critically acclaimed sci-fi thriller series, during the filming of its seventh episode, “Defiant Jazz.” Heading into the final stretch of its first season, Severance has already secured cult status with the story of mysterious company Lumon Industries, the strange dogma of its leader Kier Eagan, and the brain-surgery procedure that divides certain employees into their “Innie” and “Outie” selves, bifurcating the memories of their personal and professional lives. Tillman plays Lumon middle manager Mr. Milchick, a foreboding figure who oversees the Macrodata Refinement (MDR) team and its four severed members: Mark (Adam Scott), Helly (Britt Lower), Irving (John Turturro), and Dylan (Zach Cherry).
Milchick is a chameleon and loyal through and through to Lumon, a “really enthusiastic company man,” as Severance creator Dan Erickson imagined him. In one scene, Milchick is smilingly offering the team a “waffle party” if they meet their goals; in another, he’s torturing his employees in Lumon’s ironically named break room, forcing them to repeat a “compunction statement” — an apology to the company for not behaving exactly in line with its mission — more than 1,000 times. Tillman “definitely grabbed onto this idea that there’s something really scary behind the smile, and if you’re not careful, it’ll come out,” Erickson says. In “Defiant Jazz,” the actor channels that unsettling blend of charm and threat into shimmying, gliding, and doing the bird during a Music Dance Experience (MDE) meant to endear him to the MDR division that “totally backfires,” Tillman says.
“Usually the set is really quiet, but every now and then, I hear laughter a little bit — stifled laughter,” Tillman remembers of the two days it took to shoot the MDE. “That particular sequence brought people so much joy. It’s sweet, it’s fun, and it’s still very creepy, because I look creepy doing it.”
Episode seven provided an opportunity to explore how the barrier between the employees’ Innie and Outie selves “is starting to dangerously break down,” says Erickson. Dylan is consumed with the knowledge that his Outie has a son, which he learns after Milchik wakes up his Innie outside of the office — a major breach of Lumon protocol and a shocking misstep from a man who’s otherwise “impeccable,” “crisp,” and “obsessive,” Tramell says. Irving is confused, and slightly suspicious, about what repercussions MDR might face for fraternizing with Burt (Christopher Walken), the head of the mystifying Optics and Design division. Mark finds in his pocket the key card of Lumon security chief Mr. Graner (Michael Cumpsty), whom Mark’s Outie version was involved in killing the night before. And Helly, still reeling from her suicide attempt and the baby goats she and Mark found while wandering the Lumon compound, is stuck on what other anomalies could be hiding inside the labyrinthine white hallways. Into this confusion strolls Milchick, straight-backed as ever, pushing a cart with a record player and offering an unexpected perk: a five-minute Music Dance Experience.
“We wanted more and more stylistic juxtaposition: something that seems really, really nice and beautiful next to something that’s horrifying and scary,” Erickson says. (His other group-bonding idea of a “touch tank,” similar to the Halloween haunted-house gags, included bowls of spaghetti masquerading as brains but was put aside after “there was so much confusion over what the hell I was talking about.”) Figuring out how to take the dance number from page to set brought together several members of the crew, including executive producer Mark Friedman, whom Erickson credits with coining the term “defiant jazz” and playing a key role in developing the sequence; cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné, who had previously worked with director and EP Ben Stiller on the miniseries Escape at Dannemora; and choreographer Tara Rodriguez, who helped Tillman and the other cast members find their dance moves.
The process took weeks. Helen Leigh’s script left “a lot of room to play,” Erickson says, and everyone’s creativity took hold. For Tillman, that meant solo dance parties in his apartment “with the blinds drawn” to Earth, Wind & Fire; Stevie Wonder; and Aretha Franklin to perfect Milchick’s moves. While he and Rodriguez collaborated on the choreography to the clip from Joe McPhee’s 1971 song “Shakey Jake,” excerpted by music supervisor George Drakoulias, Gagné and Stiller worked on designing the ceiling’s rainbow-hued lighting and benefited from a happy accident with the dimmer board, which created the strobe effect.
“The gaffer thought it looked cool, so he was like, I’ll just show her,” Gagné says. “And I was like, That’s the most amazing! We’re keeping it!”
Other challenges arose. It took nearly a month to program the lighting, which Tillman — nicknamed “Milkshake” on set after one PA misheard “Milchick” — describes as Severance’s own Studio 54. Tillman and Rodriguez decided he would be unaware of the dance moves the MDR team would perform during the sequence, adding the additional challenge of Tillman organically responding to them during filming. (The actor’s only self-imposed rule for Milchick: “It’s in the Lumon handbook, no twerking.”) During the first day of filming the MDE, with ice on hand to keep Tillman from sweating through a cream cashmere sweater that “traps heat like none other,” the cast and crew didn’t even get to the dancing.
“We get right up to the point where I turn around, drop the needle on the record, and turn on the lights. And I think that was the end of that day,” Tillman says. But on the second day, with the cast and crew hyped, “we’re just having a ball.”
The morning was devoted to the dance number, which Tillman estimates took about 10 takes. “Many years in theater definitely prepared me to be able to dance and be open, because I needed to get information from them and that information was in their dance,” he says. The MDR space, which is Gagné’s favorite set inside Lumon for its contrasting tones and geometric lines, comes alive in shades of purple, blue, and pink as Tillman winds across the floor, doing a ʼ60s-style Mod dance with Helly, soldier-marching with Mark, and getting down with Irv. (Among the takes that didn’t make the final cut were “the Bump with Mark and a little Snake with John Turturro,” Tillman says.)
“The dance part, we went Steadicam, which for me was music-video vibes,” Gagné says. Key to the sequence, both Erickson and Tillman say, is that Milchick is genuinely excited to get down — Tillman conveys this through alternating mean mugging and a wide smile — and the Steadicam provides silky fluidity as he moves from person to person. But by the time Milchick ends up behind not-dancing Dylan’s desk, the vibe has started to shift. The lighting gets stuck on a shade of ominous copper, a compromise between Gagné (who wanted orange) and Stiller (who wanted red). The saxophone in “Shakey Jake” wails and screams. With Milchick peacocking behind Dylan’s desk, flanking him from side to side with increasingly aggressive dance moves (“One of my favorite shots in the whole show,” Erickson says), the MDE transforms into something else.
The afternoon of that second filming day was devoted to Dylan’s burst of unexpected but understandable violence toward Milchick. The joy of the MDE, and the visual smoothness achieved via Steadicam, deliberately evaporates, with Gagné switching to handheld in order to serve the “wildness of the erratic, unpredictable situation,” she says. A stunt double for Tillman came in for the moment Dylan shoves Milchick into the MDE cart, while Tillman’s chillingly exasperated delivery of the line “The Music Dance Experience is officially canceled” happened “in the moment,” Tillman adds. Dylan’s attack “was an act of betrayal” from Milchick’s perspective, the actor says. “Man, I’m coming in here, trying to bring joy. We’re going to have a good time. I’m going to help you forget about what happened the night before. And you come up and take a chunk out of my arm? [Laughs.] Like, what are you doing?”
The bite that leaves a bloody splotch on Milchick’s sweater certainly feels like a point of no return — the defining rupture between supervisor and the group he’s tasked with controlling. The MDE ends with each side in an opposing frame, with deadpan humor in Milchick’s haughty exit but a sober united front for Mark, Irving, and Helly as they cluster around Dylan. “It’s one of the first times, if not the first time, you see them all touching each other, Erickson says. “Watching them, I thought, Oh, they just became a team.”